AUGUSTA — Suzanne Smith stood on the sidewalk outside St. Michael School Thursday afternoon as firefighters worked to control a stubborn blaze inside a century-old Sewall Street apartment building.

At Smith’s feet was a cloth purse and small safe containing her most important documents. Smith wondered how many of her other belongings she had left.

“I was watching TV, and I heard a loud bang on the door,” Smith said. “They’re like, ‘Fire! Get out!’ I grabbed my purse and grabbed my safe and came running out the door.”

Smith was one of 14 tenants, including five children, left homeless by the fire inside the three-story apartment building at 55 Sewall St. Nobody was hurt in the fire, which broke out shortly before noon — apparently on an exterior porch outside a second-floor apartment.

The American Red Cross collected names of displaced tenants to offer assistance.

An investigator from the State Fire Marshal’s Office was looking over the six-unit building Thursday in an attempt to determine how the fire started.

Tim Perkins, who lives in the apartment with his girlfriend and two children, ages 6 and 6 months, said he was awakened by a noise outside his window. All but the 6-year-old were home with him.

“I woke up and my porch was on fire,” he said. “I heard a crackling and looked up and saw all red.”

Perkins told his family to leave the building and then started banging on neighbors doors. He said six people were inside when the fire broke out.

Dozens of firefighters from Chelsea, Gardiner, Hallowell, Togus and Winthrop spent more than three hours extinguishing the fire inside the six-unit apartment building, which was built in 1903.

Flames were swept by strong, gusting wind and spread into the attic and other crannies of the building, making it difficult to fight, said Augusta Fire Chief Roger Audette.

“We’ve had an awful time,” he said at the scene.

Audette recalled similar difficulties when the building caught fire in March of 2002. “Every time it’s been horrible,” he said.

The white building is just off Western Avenue, directly behind Flo’s Augusta Flower Cart and across Sewall Street from St. Michael School. Residents sought shelter in the school and an employee brought grilled cheese sandwiches to firefighters.

Carmela Hardy had lunch with her children at the school and then returned home to Melville Street, a block east.

“As I was going in the house I heard an explosion,” Hardy said. “It sounded like a shotgun. I came back because I was concerned for my children.”

Audette said the loud noise was likely the result of an exploding propane tank on the deck.

St. Michael School was locked down as a precaution, Hardy said. Parents were notified the lock-down was because of a fire next door and assured the children were safe.

“I was so nervous because of everything that happened at Sandy Hook,” Hardy said, referring to the elementary school shooting last month in Newtown, Conn.

Allison Maxwell, who has lived in the building about three years, was at work when the fire broke out. She said she learned of the fire when she came home for lunch.

“I never come home for lunch,” she said. “I saw it was my building.”

Jessy Carr shares a first-floor apartment with her two children, ages 4 and 6. None were home when the fire broke out. She said a friend who stopped to visit went to Carr’s workplace to deliver the news.

“I was scared until I found out everyone got out OK,” Carr said.

The 2002 fire at 55 Sewall St. started in a basement and spread to each of the three stories, stranding one woman on a second-story fire escape until she was rescued, according to Kennebec Journal archives. That fire left nine tenants homeless, and the building, which was insured, was later renovated. Damage at that time was estimated at $70,000.

“That one wasn’t as bad,” said Laurier Brunelle, who bought the building in 1998.

Brunelle, who stood on the sidewalk hugging his wife, Teresa, said he had spoken to each of his tenants.

“I know they’re all out — that’s the main thing,” he said. “I think they all have places to go. They’re all upset, of course. It’s an awful thing for everyone.”

Smith said she could stay with her daughter and was waiting for her to arrive.

“It’s pretty devastating,” she said.

Moments later, her daughter approached and Smith rushed to her. Setting down her safe, the women embraced each other tightly. They cried.

“It’s OK, Mom,” her daughter said. “It’s OK.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642
ccrosby@centralmaine.com